By Kevin Jagernauth | The Playlist June 2, 2014 at 10:05AM
Earlier this spring in our preview of the first season of HBO's "Silicon Valley," we wrote that "Office Space" mastermind Mike Judge had "booted up something with a lot of promise, but it's success will be determined on how the latter half of the season lands." And indeed, the tech world comedy has had a wobbly ride to the finale, but the good news is "Optimal Tip-To-Tip Efficiency" closed out the eight-episode season one with arguably its best entry. The bad news is that while the show has been quickly renewed, the longevity will require Judge and co. balancing their ambitions for realistically skewering the industry and the tendency to indulge in broader gags on which entire subplots hang. Essentially, the more pointed the satire, the better "Silicon Valley" becomes, but whenever it strays from those intentions, the thin framework of the show is clearly seen.
All season long, the central narrative has surrounded Richard (an increasingly winning Thomas Middleditch), the founder of Pied Piper, who rejects a multi-million dollar offer from tech titan and Hooli founder Gavin Belson (Matt Ross), to throw his hat in with oddball investor Peter Gregory (Christopher Evan Welch), who just wants a stake in the company, not entire ownership. The move is a risky one, and fuels the wrath of Gavin, who decides to reverse engineer Richard's valuable compression algorithm, to not only beat him to market, but also make it more attractive by coupling it with his company's Google-esque suite of services. So, it's a premise ripe with potential but its often left spinning its wheels.
Certainly, what Judge gets right is the unique and often surreal culture of the tech world, filled by young, extraordinarily smart men who are just as socially awkward as they are intelligent. And so even in Gavin, we see someone whose quirks are exacerbated by success, such as turning to his omni-present personal guru for advice (in a running gag that's thankfully ditched pretty fast). Or taken to further extremes by Peter, who spends a good chunk of the third episode, "Articles Of Incorporation," obsessively studying Burger King hamburger buns (leading to an unlikely breakthrough revelation). And within Richard's entourage, even while one-dimensional for the most part, each member of Pied Piper has their own set of identifiers (even if it's as weak as Dinesh (Kumail Nanjiani) being the token minority, and otherwise just uptight) and the cast certainly hits their targets dead on (Erlich, played by T.J. Miller, emerging as a womanizing player in the final episode is a particularly hilarious touch and opens up his character a bit more). But perhaps most disappointing is how many threads are left dangling throughout the entire season.
One of the bigger left turns earlier on was Richard losing his best friend Big Head (Josh Brener) after he signs a lucrative contract with Hooli, with the latter eventually being reluctantly involved in the process of taking apart the valuable piece of code at the centre of Gavin and Peter's battle for power. (He was later pulled from the project when it's discovered he actually knows nothing about the algorithm.) It's potentially rich stuff, but the subplot goes nowhere, with the possibly intriguing texture of a friendship tested by their careers mostly unexplored. And then there are the subplots which just exist to pad time. Erlich's mushroom trip to try and find a new name for Pied Piper, Jared (Zach Woods) getting trapped inside a shipping container thanks to Gavin's malfunctioning autopilot car, and Gilfoyle's (Martin Starr) one-episode appearance of a girlfriend were all curious and mostly unfunny detours that added little to the show. And it makes one wonder how large of an impact the loss of Christopher Evan Welch—who died after completing his work on the first five episodes—had in forcing the writers to work around his absence (something that's definitely felt as the show heads toward the finale).
And while the tech world is male-centered, it doesn't mean the show has to be, and hopefully Judge and the team of writers do a better job of representing women headed into season two. Monica (Amanda Crew) has the most prominent role as Peter's number two, but she's mostly there to motivate the uncertain and inexperienced Richard, though it seems the pair have a Jim/Pam from "The Office" dynamic forming, with any potential romance stymied by the professional codes of conduct. But Monica aside, "Silicon Valley" has been populated by a stripper (in another mostly unfunny subplot), Richard's ex-girlfriend who he's (not) obsessed with, Gilfoyle's aforementioned girlfriend, a competitor's ex-wife (who exists for Erlich to have sex with), a TechCrunch competitor who doesn't know how to code in Flash and ... that's about it. It would be nice to see these brainiacs truly challenged by a smart, independent woman (or two) rather than have the gender mostly represented in the service of jokes. Granted, it's usually at the expense of the guys at Pied Piper, but having their matches met and their expectations overturned by a woman just as much their equal would be even funnier.
But all this is not to say that "Silicon Valley" has missed the mark. Comedies often need a season to work out their tone and find their groove, and there is plenty of promise here to suggest that with the right tweaks, the best is yet to come from this show. Key to the success thus far has been the cast themselves, with Middleditch finding that sweet spot of someone who's both ambitious and way over their head. Miller gets some good mileage out of the aggressively self-centered Erlich, who has more than few tricks up his sleeve, and while Starr has played this kind character multiple times before, there's few who do it better. And when the writing zeroes in on the tech industry, "Silicon Valley" delivers some very big laughs. In fact, the extended, epic inspiration handjob joke in "Optimal Tip-To-Tip Efficiency" might be the best gag "Silicon Valley" has done to date: gutbusting, crude but also whipsmart. It's a great piece of writing with the cast nailing the moment.
We've already seen the world of television and film sent up, and if "Silicon Valley" really wants to stake a claim to some originality, they really need to go harder after the logos featured prominently during the opening credits. It's those companies that are both at the forefront of the innovation on the Internet, but who also open themselves up to satirical scrutiny frequently (how has there been no Google Glass joke on this show yet?). While some corners are championing "Silicon Valley" as the next great HBO comedy, the show isn't quite there yet. However, the potential of the material and concept is still huge, and perhaps most excitingly, it seems like Judge and the team behind the series are just scratching the surface of what they can do. The best advantage "Silicon Valley" has at the moment, is that no one else has mined this area for comedy, at least not as prominently (sorry, "Big Bang Theory" doesn't count), and with a little more care, a bit more focus and a sharper, more incisive knife to the people behind the ones and zeroes that allow us to communicate and be more productive, this series can really launch into something truly significant. [B-]